I am delighted to finally visit Linda Popp’s studio, way up in the woods. It’s a beautiful setting, where her birdhouses dot flower beds and gardens bear her special touch. The recently retired art educator is making the most of her newfound free time.
Her studio is located inside a charming cottage, separate from the home the artist shares with a fine woodcarver/craftsman. She takes me up a spiral staircase to her “happy place,” a space for working, lifted above the landscape and filled with light from windows on every side. It is like ascending into a treasure trove of materials, works in progress, and walls covered by finished art.
When I first met Linda, I was supervising student teachers while she chaired the art department of Towson High School. During her 41-year career with Baltimore County Public Schools, she was a dynamo in the classroom, determined to convert even those most reticent about creating art into confident makers, discovering its rewards. She was always a maker, every year taking amazing, magically constructed necklaces from colored pencils and more to sell at National Art Education conferences. I could say a whole lot more about the model teacher she was, but today we’re here to talk about her studio and practice as an artist.
What really impresses me about Popp is the way in which gathering, making, and assembling artful constructions has been and continues to be a multi-dimensional practice that has provided continuity between her teaching and art practice. She made art alongside her students, made art outside the classroom, and making art has remained such a vital source of joy that it now sustains her in retirement—which is not really retirement: As an artist, Popp is also always a teacher.
Karen Carroll: I was very excited to see you and your studio presented in the last print edition of BmoreArt, and more than delighted to have a conversation with you right here! Looking at your works in progress, I’m reminded of strategies from our time teaching. We both admired Barry Shauck (then the Howard County Supervisor for the Visual Arts). He would engage artists to give workshops to teachers based on their practice, and then challenged teachers to create classroom projects inspired by that artist.
You published an article about the experience of inviting Ed Smith, an artist making assemblage clocks, to your high school art class. Based on Smith’s work, you posed a rather “elegant problem,” to borrow a phrase from Dr. Sandra Kay, to your students—one that would apply broadly to all students, leave plenty of room for elaboration, inspire originality, and above all, lead to “elegant” solutions filled with personal meaning. As an art educator, you knew you had to “test” the problem yourself so you would have a prototype to share with students—and this seemed to lead you in the direction of your current work.
Linda Popp: The problem I presented to the students was: Create a pendulum clock that uses the symbolism of found objects to create a portrait of a person with whom you’ve had a long-term relationship. My first prototype was about my mother, and I immediately became hooked on the process. So, each year I created a new prototype for the lesson. (When the students came in the door in September they’d be asking if this was the class where they get to make a clock!) Eventually I felt I needed to expand my theme from an individual person to other relationships, so I went beyond “portraits.”
How have your work’s themes and forms evolved over time? Does the theme of an exhibition you have been invited to influence your work? How do you respond to showing with others who are working with the same theme as you?
My “big idea” is always relationships. Subjects have included family, love, faith, nature, self, self (female), and place. And yes, themes have evolved depending on what’s going on in my life or the world around me. For example, a friend’s husband passed away, prompting me to think about dealing with lost love. Now being a “woman of a certain age,” I’m exploring ideas of female beauty.
Aging has also influenced my reflection on legacy, and day-to-day gratefulness. The COVID shutdown inspired my Nature series as my exercise switched to jogging outdoors. Moving caused me to reflect on places I’ve considered home and to explore my Relationship with Place. My Relationship with Love series has evolved from thinking about being in love with one person (which I am) to loving and supporting all people (perhaps prompted by current events).
The forms my work takes have evolved as well. A few years later a friend challenged me to create an assemblage sculpture that wasn’t a clock, which I had difficulty doing. When the Maryland Federation of Art called for entries to a national exhibit titled Small Wonders, the maximum size was 11 inches. As I couldn’t make a pendulum clock that small, I was forced to attempt a small sculpture. So, exhibits or their themes can be motivational tools that inspire and challenge new work. Now I enjoy working large or small, free-standing or relief sculptures, assemblages, and lately even collage.
As for how exhibitions might influence the direction of my work, I look to see where my work might “fit” after the fact. Towson Arts Collective has monthly themed exhibits. Sometimes I have work that fits, and sometimes I don’t.
I do consider viewing the work of other artists in a themed exhibit as an opportunity to learn. It is so interesting to see different artists’ responses to the same idea. I also love to view other works constructed with found objects and assemblage techniques to study materials and craftsmanship.
You have files and containers labeled with tons of different kinds of materials, stacks and piles on the floor, your working space cluttered with a variety of tiny objects, ribbons, and mementos. You spoke of going to flea markets to search for materials. Can you say more about the relationship between materials and how they come to influence what happens in the course of making new pieces?
I love going to flea markets because I never know what I might find. On occasion, I might be thinking about a theme and searching for the “perfect object” needed to complete or begin a narrative. However, I just pick up interesting, inexpensive tchotchkes and am rarely looking for one specific item. Perhaps it will be the object that sparks an idea or a train of thought.
Last year I came upon a little girl’s vintage play stove, which then sparked thoughts about current events (Kamala Harris becoming Vice President). It started me on a piece reflecting how little girls’ dreams and opportunities have changed in just my lifetime—”Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice.” That was followed by a sculpture about little boys’ dreams and thinking about the opportunities that they have always had—“Snips and Snails and Puppy Dogs Tails.”
Just recently I found a tiny little chair, which caused me to think about the empty chairs at family dinner tables (which I heard in a speech by President Biden). Then a line came to me: “We are all mothers to each other……and there’s so much that needs tending.” So now there is a sculpture-in-progress entitled: “And There’s so Much That Needs Tending.” The tiny empty chair sits in a central position, accompanied by materials that call to mind the pandemic, Ukraine, and the fight for democracy abroad and here at home.
I also have hundreds of “working titles” taken from song lyrics, poems, and quotations. Often an object and a working title will trigger an idea I want to explore further. I have learned to trust my process and allow things to come to me as I am gathering and assembling. I stay open to whatever comes my way.
Sometimes searching for one item, which of course is hiding somewhere in my vast collection, I am led to other items that may suggest possibilities and have meaning or purpose that I had not thought about before. This is what makes this process always exciting to me.
Behind you is a whole rack of tools for working with sculptural materials. On your table are all kinds of wires and glues. Given that you have been working for years as an assemblage artist, how has your practice evolved?
I have always been concerned about the archival quality of my work, so craftsmanship is vital. Over the years I think I have become more courageous with materials/objects so my “craftswomanship” has had to keep up. I also think I have more layers in my work which causes me to be patient and to really plan when attaching objects. I am always learning from other assemblage artists too.
Is there anything more you’d like to share about the journey that has taken you from your training in art and teaching, through a career as an art teacher, department chair, and leader, to your arrival in this “happy place” with invitations to share your work through exhibitions?
I have always felt that my artwork informed my teaching, and my teaching informed my art. I know telling students to “take risks” in their work and to fearlessly exhibit their work has forced me to do the same. I cherished my time teaching and now I cherish my time in my studio, my “happy place.” Both are hard fun!
I do have a YouTube channel! When COVID hit and the schools switched to distance learning, I was asked to make a video of my process to use as a resource for teaching. “Working With Collections” and “Telling Stories,” plus a few others, are now out there for those interested in learning some of my tips and techniques. Always a teacher!
I use Facebook and Instagram (@lpoppart) to show my work and where I’m exhibiting. As well, I’m always showing at the Hamilton Art Gallery and Towson Art Collective, and often at the Maryland Federation of Art. I will be featured in an exhibit at Stevenson University in Fall 2022. I am always exploring opportunities for new exhibits to pursue.
Remembering: Karin Birch, Linda Popp Exhibition at Stevenson University
September 10 – December 17, 2022
Arts Alive at Stevenson University is pleased to announce Remembering: Karin Birch, Linda Popp. The exhibition is installed in the School of Design Lobby Gallery. The opening reception is Saturday, September 24 between 1-4pm.
Birch and Popp visual narratives include memories and storytelling. Each artist explores and innovates traditional methods of making.
Karin Birch selected paintings for this exhibition that were made over the last decade and a half. From the Great Recession to the Pandemic, they cover quite a time range. Ultimately, they express the beauty of being alive, though maybe not easily. They tell stories for an imaginative viewer to fall in love with and make sense of for themselves. These mixed media paintings include embroidery, stitching and glass beads.
Karin Birch’s grandmother taught her to embroider at age 9. At age 15, she decided to be an artist. At age 28, she decided embroidery and painting belonged together. She has spent over three decades pursuing that idea.
Linda Popp creates narrative, found object assemblage sculptures. She uses artifacts and symbolic objects to convey stories about relationships with family, place, love, faith, nature, self, and other themes. During the creative process, she goes beyond the personal and a sculpture’s narrative becomes universal. Popp feels our stories are all connected. Some objects/symbols are obvious; others may be interpreted by viewers differently as they bring their own experiences to the work.
Popp enjoys the idea that something from her story may cause others to reflect on their own narrative. Many of the titles of her work come from music, books, and poetry that then guide her intention as she assembles her found objects. She never shares all her stories as she invites the viewer to participate in the work.
The School of Design is located on the Owings Mills North campus. The address is 11100 Ted Herget Way (Formally Gundry Lane), Owings Mills, MD 21117. For more information on this and all Exhibition Programming, please contact Professor Lori Rubeling, Lrubeling@stevenson.edu.